It will take many nations to stop China dominating the Pacific. Australia has a leading role to play in this major multilateral contest.

Like empires past, Xi Jinping’s China seeks three grand prizes in the Pacific: wealth, control and presence. Australia and other Pacific nations took time to recognise the nature and scope of this neocolonial ambition and the risk it brings. Responses have veered from complacency to overreaction, fatalism to alarm.

The events of 2022 – especially the controversy over China’s security agreement with Solomon Islands – have thus been a useful wake-up call. Australian interests would be directly jeopardised if China were to establish a military base so close to our shores. But even absent that scenario, the prospect of a Pacific island government turning to the guns and truncheons of a one-party nationalist megastate to suppress domestic dissent is confronting. A long contest has begun.

United States Navy, Japanese and Australian ships steam into formation during a trilateral exercise. Photo: Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The aim cannot be to exclude one of the world’s greatest powers from the largest ocean. That is neither a realistic strategy nor what most of the region’s governments and peoples want. Instead, the challenge for Pacific island states and their international friends is to craft an inclusive vision for long-term development and protection of sovereignty. The good news is that Australia is far from alone in wanting to build the resilience of the Pacific against China’s control.

The Biden administration is expanding American civilian support for the region. But the United States is hardly the only other option. New Zealand, Japan, France, the EU, Britain and India all have much to offer, and others such as Canada, Germany and South Korea could play a part. Taiwan, too, remains a Pacific contributor. China has a rightful place in the Pacific, just not the right to dominate. If many partners sustain their commitment, then all Pacific nations will benefit and strategic rivalry need not permanently shadow the future of the Blue Continent.

United States President Joe Biden (centre) with Pacific Island leaders at The White House. Photo: The White House/Flickr (Public domain)

Preventing China from dominating the Pacific is a daunting task and hardly for Australia to pursue alone. An overbearing Australian approach won’t work: it would reinforce Beijing’s disinformation– and understandable local concerns – about an Anglosphere country reviving old colonial ploys of treating the Pacific as its sphere of influence.

And there’s the question of means. Recent boosts to our development assistance, financing, infrastructure, education and security relations will make a difference, but they are only a fraction of the aid and support the Pacific will need in the long run. For Canberra to throw nearly all its finite external policy arsenal – aid, diplomacy, security, intelligence and more – at a contested Pacific would also mean abandoning the aspiration of helping to shape our rounder region.

The Indo-Pacific is centred on maritime Southeast Asia, but also includes the Indian Ocean, where China’s larger ambitions (including dominance of sea lanes and access to Africa) proceed apace. Expectations will also grow for Australia to strengthen its role as a protector of the global commons in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, where we have the largest territorial claim.

A misreading of China’s global powerplay is that it boils down to a crude contest between Beijing and Washington. In fact, many powers have agency to prevent any one nation dominating their region. The Pacific is no exception to this pattern. Its future is of global importance, so a smart strategy is to engage a coalition, from Asia to Europe, to bolster the region’s nations and institutions: a sea of many flags.

Consider, for instance, the players that have stepped up in times of Pacific need in recent years. When Tonga’s infrastructure was badly damaged by a tsunami after a volcanic eruption in January, aircraft and ships converged with food, water, medicine and shelter from various corners, notably Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain, France, the United States and, yes, China. Many stakeholders have enough shared principles, something to offer, and increasingly a willingness to contribute. Some also have historical baggage. But they have every chance to prove that their renewed involvement is about putting local needs first, the antithesis of colonialism.

Australia, along with many countries, supply significant aid to the Pacific region. Photo: Department of Defence/Commonwealth Government

A rich patchwork of involvement from these international partners is not about denying Beijing a role in the Pacific. But China is at its most bullying when it dominates a bilateral room. In a multilateral setting– especially where there is solidarity among democracies– any great power’s influence is moderated. By providing an ocean of options, these many other partners can help Pacific nations set the terms for engagement with China.

This may range from more accountability of Chinese funding to restricting the way China’s security forces or fishing fleets operate. The idea of Australia and other democracies working alongside or even in partnership with China in areas such as infrastructure, disaster relief, policing and health should not be ruled out – but only provided China can accept a high common denominator of standards and transparency.

In all this, Australia could be a guide and an informal coordinator for other international contributors, encouraging them to invest efficiently, for the long haul and in line with what Pacific communities want. This is leadership, but of a quiet kind, with a premium on self-awareness, inclusion and genuine diplomacy.

For Australia, this means constant convening, listening and advising, infused by an ethos of commitment without zeal. We should accept that sometimes others may have capabilities and ideas more suited for Pacific needs than our own – perhaps Japanese technical expertise, French marine research, German democratic transparency, Indian health care or British climate finance.

Labor foreign policy lore recounts Australia’s key role in enlightened collective achievements of more than a generation ago, like the Cambodia Peace Process, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and global arms control and disarmament agreements. Now Australia needs to rediscover that muscle memory for multilateral convening and coordination and apply it close to home, submerging hard national interest in a sense of regional or global citizenship where true partners hold each other to account. This is not about backing down on security, but rather providing it in the broadest sense. The test ahead is to prove we are up to this authentically Pacific kind of leadership.

This is an extract from Professor Rory Medcalf’s essay in Australian Foreign Affairs, ‘Sea of many flags’.

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